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This flashy butterfly species is booming in eastern Oklahoma

A male Diana fritillary swoops down toward a female in the butterfly house at the Eucha Butterfly Farm in Leonard.
Kelly J Bostian
Oklahoma Ecology Project
A male Diana fritillary swoops down toward a female in the butterfly house at the Eucha Butterfly Farm in Leonard.

John Fisher can’t forget a fellow naturalist yelling to him across the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve more than ten years ago, “Hey! Diana!”

Fisher ran to find a dark brown male butterfly with bright orange outer wings, swiped at it with his net, and watched in dismay as it flew away.

“I just couldn’t believe I missed it!” he said. “It was the first one I’d seen in Oklahoma.”

Another researcher offered to chase after the fast-flier, so Fisher quickly pulled bits of flowers and leaves out of his net. Suddenly, he saw what he thought he had missed among the leaves: a Diana fritillary.

“There were two!” he said with a chuckle.

This year, verified records since May 20 indicate nearly twice as many Oklahomans have reported seeing twice the number of Diana fritillaries as in any year past, and the season is just beginning.

Fisher, a lifelong naturalist and amateur lepidopterist, put out a call through the Butterflies and Moths of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas Facebook Group and is asking all Oklahomans to add their Diana observations to the iNaturalist app, which is free to download and use.

He said growing awareness of their numbers and locations could literally and officially increase the Diana fritillary’s status on scientific maps for statewide, national, and global reference.

Until recently, only Fisher and a few other naturalists and lepidopterists recorded fritillary observations. Now, thanks to iNaturalist, amateur naturalists, gardeners, and casual outdoor adventurers who recognize these flashy butterflies and can add verified sightings to the public record.

Current iNaturalist records list about 150 total Diana fritillary reports for Oklahoma, with just a handful before the iNaturalist use explosion in 2020, thanks partly to COVID-19.

Records show that about 15 people reported sightings of about 25 Dianas annually, give or take, since 2020. This season is just starting, and 33 Oklahomans have reported 43 Dianas from Talihina to areas near Stillwater and Hominy.

About fritillaries

Oklahoma has four greater fritillary species, including the Edwards, found only in the far west Panhandle, the relatively rare Regal, the Great Spangled and the Diana. Fisher said two others, the variegated and the migratory Gulf fritillary, have the “fritillary” moniker as a common name but are not true fritillaries.

Dianas are relatively easy to identify from the others. They have a wingspan of 4 inches, give or take, and both males and females sport striking, but very different, colors. Males are black or deep brown with wide, bright orange bands on their outer wings. The females are bluish-black and might, at first sight, be confused with the state butterfly, the black swallowtail, or the similar-looking pipevine swallowtail. But the female Diana has broad wings with distinct white and blue fringes and does not have tailed hindwings like the swallowtails.

Male Dianas emerged first, around the last of May and the first week of June. Females started emerging a week or two behind their potential suitors. Both will dance across the woods and meadows all summer.

“They won’t mate until probably July, and the females will hold their eggs until late August September,” Fisher said. “The eggs hatch, and the caterpillars, just tiny, tiny ones, don’t eat at all, and they burrow down into the duff and just hide until spring. They’re so small they can lay there frozen in winter. When the violets come up in spring, out they will come.”

“I think they’re one of the most interesting and beautiful butterflies we have in Oklahoma,” Fisher said.

More observations needed

Official sources, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the population-tracking NatureServe Network, only note sporadic sightings of the butterflies in Oklahoma and list only Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia as their home range.

But Fisher’s records and iNaturalist have them as far west as Stillwater and recorded at some point in most counties east of Interstate 35.

Fisher said the Diana fritillary likely is underrepresented and due for a population status upgrade. Status rankings are important because they guide wildlife conservation efforts and funding.

The Oklahoma Biological Survey compiles rankings for the NatureServe Network through its Oklahoma Biodiversity Information System and currently lists the Diana as S2, a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need.”

The listing means they are “at high risk of extirpation in the jurisdiction due to restricted range, few populations or occurrences, steep declines, severe threats, or other factors.”

Fisher believes the Diana fritillary should be ranked S4, defined as “apparently secure.” However, they may be prone to boom and bust years because violets are the only food source for their offspring.

Heritage biologists in each state contribute to those status records, like University of Oklahoma Assistant Professor of Biology Keng-Lou James Hung with the Biological Survey.

Hung said NatureServe status changes require calculations and a heritage biologist’s report based on sightings, habitat, climate trends, and other factors. He noted that verified iNaturalist observations make a difference and that people should report all their sightings.

The state has only a few heritage biologists to track thousands of species of flora and fauna, but Oklahoma is about to review its species records, and critters like the Diana fritillary might get a closer look, he said.

“Another aspect is the Oklahoma Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, which is updated every ten years,” he said. “The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation manages that in partnership with other agencies and the Biological Survey.”

People specializing in certain areas, like Fisher with moths and butterflies, are often consulted during those updates. The next update comes out in 2026.

“Having one good year of the Diana doing well is a very good sign,” Hung said. “But we will still need to plug in the numbers to see if the status should change.”

The Oklahoma Ecology Project is a nonprofit dedicated to in-depth reporting on Oklahoma’s conservation and environmental issues. Learn more atokecology.org

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